Here’s How to Help a Friend Living With a Chronic Illness
The tenets of friendship are pretty basic: Be down for any and all Netflix sessions, watch her cat when she's out of town, and always show up for workout-buddy duties.
But when a friend is suffering from a chronic illness, things can suddenly feel a whole lot more complicated. What physical limitations are involved? How do you support her emotionally? And most pressing, what exactly do you say?
This applies to everything from ongoing health issues to more serious illnesses, like multiple sclerosis (MS). Considering that MS affects about 400,000 people in the US—with women three times as likely as men to be affected—you may know a friend in this group. And most of those with MS are diagnosed between ages 20 and 40.
But wait. What exactly is MS? "Multiple sclerosis is a chronic autoimmune disease where a person's own immune system attacks their central nervous system—your brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves," explains Stephanie Petersen, RN, a nurse for MS One to One®, a support program offered by Sanofi Genzyme for people living with MS, including care partners and healthcare providers. "While MS symptoms vary from person to person, the disease may affect a person's vision, cognitive abilities, motor function, energy level, susceptibility to stress, emotional state, and balance."
"The single most important thing you can do to help a friend suffering from MS, or any chronic disease, is to be understanding, supportive, and always there to listen."
As a friend, the first step is making sure they are getting the support they need—and MS One to One® is one way to do that. Through the program, nurses are available by phone 24/7 to talk to anyone affected by MS and answer questions. Plus, you can browse through the website for additional tips, tools, and apps to help manage living with MS.
But beyond that, how do you make sure your BFF is feeling supported? To find out, we talked to Amy Kurtz, a certified health and wellness coach and author of Kicking Sick. No stranger to what it feels like to struggle with your health (she's suffered from a thyroid disorder, celiac disease, and a severe gastric disorder), Kurtz has firsthand experience—and she's here to share.
Read on for three ways you can be an awesome friend to someone living with a chronic health issue—including exactly what to say.
Step 1: Listen
"When you have a chronic illness at a young age," Kurtz says, "you don’t know how to deal, they don’t know how to deal, and it can bring up so many different feelings for everyone."
The most important thing, Kurtz says, is to be honest—which goes both ways. So when a friend is open about her limitations, show her that you're listening.
The best route is to say "simple things, like, 'I see what you’re going through and I’m here. What can I do to help you feel a little better?' [or] 'How can I help you lift your spirits today?' Just listening is such a gift to give someone."
Petersen agrees. "In some cases, the challenges of MS can cause tension in relationships, and often people living with the disease may isolate themselves from friends and family members," she says. "The single most important thing you can do to help a friend suffering from MS, or any chronic disease, is to be understanding, supportive, and always there to listen."
Step 2: Be empathetic
For someone who's sick, doctors and diagnoses can feel like all they ever talk about, Kurtz says. The answer? Act as a positive outlet and bring up your common interests to remind them that you know they're more than their illness.
"Anything that offers a person a connection to their heart—their true self rather than their diagnoses—is helpful," she advises. "It reminds them that they are so much more than their physical body, and that the rest of them needs to be well-nourished in all areas in order to properly take care of their physical struggle."
Step 3: Give your time
Lastly, to be succinct: Show up. Kurtz says there's always a creative way to make plans around what your friend can do—which is extra important for someone with MS, who can benefit from support with every day tasks like staying active or preparing a meal.
"Even if it’s playing cards in your PJs or watching TV together, FaceTiming silly faces, going for a walk…anything light and fun that nurtures your connection," she recommends. "A lot of people feel disconnected from their loved ones and their community when they’re sick—simply reaching out to them has a big impact."
Not close enough for an IRL hang sesh? Kurtz advises scheduling a weekly call to chat. "Most importantly, just be honest and be normal and be present—that’s the biggest thing you can do for a friend in need, or any friendship really," she says. "Ask how you can show up for them."
Do you know someone who could benefit from MS One to One®? Learn more about the support program aimed at empowering anyone living with relapsing MS at msonetoone.com, or call (855) 676-6326 to speak to a nurse.
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